[A few weeks ago, four of us set out for the pristine reefs of Cuba on a marine biological expedition. Following is the first in a series of daily journal entries from the trip.]
Our party consisted of John Bruno and Abel Valdivia of UNC Chapel Hill, myself from VIMS, and James Kealey of Columbia University. John and Abel were scouting sites for a study of shark impacts on reef communities, while James and I were searching for social shrimp as part of a larger ongoing study of their ecology, evolution, biogeography, and social life, which I’ve discussed previously here, here, and here.
Day 1: Friday 27 May
Up at 0400 for the first of several legs by land, air, and sea.
The team converges from our various origins at Miami International for a long check-in and wait, followed by a brief 45-minute hop into another world.
In the day’s failing light we reach our classic old Hemingway-era hotel and check in—the old familiar scent of tropical mildew churning up a flood of evocative memories, and walk out into the Havana evening. Down the Prado, and the narrow alleys of the old city to the 16th century Spanish harbor with its three conquistador-era forts guarding the entrance, moats still intact (though no longer fortified with Cuban crocodiles as we’re told they once were). There’s a strange feeling of desertion for a Friday night, intensified by the paucity of street lights, yet everywhere there are people strolling the streets, playing chess on the sidewalk, idling with fishing poles along the breakwater. And, importantly, it’s a family atmosphere: kids riding bikes, girls holding hands, couples, old people. Only the occasional individual politely asking for a coin (“USA? USA! Great country!”). Hard to pick out a hustler or rough character. None of the sense of menace so characteristic of many large Caribbean cities after dark. For all its faults and broken hopes, the Revolucion appears at least to have kept the peace and given people of modest means some pride.
Havana is fascinating, a larger manifestation in time and depth of the famous fleet of relict mid-century American cars here. The architecture is magnificent, at least the classical edifices of the old city, before the chunky Soviet hulks on the outskirts of town. Columns and treed promenades and high ceilings and balconies everywhere. But it is decrepit. The limestone streaked with black grime, paint peeling, balconies of august buildings hung with wet sheets and laundry, stores nearly bare of merchandise (flashbacks to my visit to Siberia in 1995), shuttered factories. And of course the ancient cars. And horse-drawn carts, even in the city.